Food Photography 101: The Fundamentals

Taking food pictures has never been easier. But, when it comes to taking really good food pictures, it’s not quite as easy to do. If you’re ready to improve your food images, it’s time to go back to the basics and learn the fundamentals of food photography. Welcome to Food Photography 101! These fundamentals will pull you out of the “point and shoot” mindset so you can plan ahead, take control and ultimately improve your food images.

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Food Photography 101

Food Photography 101: Non-Technical Basics

Food photography involves much more than just picking up your camera and taking a quick picture. The food photography 101 fundamentals are incredibly important, but many times they aren’t thought through enough. Because it’s so easy to take a picture, photo shoots are easily rushed and results in images that fall flat in comparison to images that were given more thought. The truth is, the best food photography images are achieved by planning ahead. And, that’s what the fundamentals will remind you to do.

Creative Vision

What is your creative vision and shot list?

The very first step when thinking about food photography ideas is to figure out your shot list (what food you want to shoot) and your creative vision for the food (what you want your images to look like).

A good exercise to get you started is to think about the food images that make you stop and stare. What is it about them that you like? What is about them that you don’t like? Do you prefer light and airy food images or dark and moody food images? Do you like seeing images that are more polished and perfect or more rustic and natural?

Your creative vision will depend on what you’re shooting and the story you’re trying to tell. It will probably change per shoot and that’s absolutely ok so don’t feel like you have to pick one creative look.

A great way to define the creative vision for your shoot is to create mood boards ahead of time. Gather ideas, sketch different layouts and create a shot list that will help you tell the food story. You can do image searches on Pinterest and see what sparks inspiration for you. Defining your shot list and creative vision will help the rest of the food photography 101 fundamentals fall into place more easily.

Food Styling

What approach do you want to take with the food styling? How can you prioritize the shot list so the food doesn’t sit for too long?

Something to keep in mind is, just like food photography, food styling is a specialty and its own profession. Just because you know how to cook, doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to style and plate food for the camera. I often work with a food stylist for brand projects and chefs for restaurant projects, because it allows me to focus more on the photography.

But, whether you’re working on your own or with a food stylist or chef, figuring out the food styling approach really depends on what food you’ll be working with. Many foods have different personalities when it comes to plating, heat and how long they can sit before they start looking not-so-great. 😉 The only way to really get to know the food is to get your hands dirty in the kitchen and start working with it. And, knowing your shot list ahead of time, will help you prioritize the shots in an order that makes sense.

Styling is a much trickier part of the fundamentals to master, because it’s just as complex as the photography. If the food doesn’t look good, the image won’t look good either. If the food looks good, but it’s shot poorly, the image won’t look good. There’s a process and an art behind the styling and the photography and they both need to align with each other to create a beautiful image.

One thing I like to recommend to people who are just starting out is to get some pretty ingredients and play with the other fundamentals first. Don’t worry about “mastering” the food styling right off the bat, because it could potentially hold you back. There are other fundamentals to experiment with and your food styling will evolve with time and practice.

READ MORE ABOUT: FOOD STYING TOOLS EVERY FOOD PHOTOGRAPHER SHOULD HAVE

Props & Surfaces

What props and surfaces will you need to bring your creative vision to life?

After the creative vision and food styling is clear, figuring out your food photography props and surfaces is a fun next step. For example, if you know you want to shoot a dark and moody food image, you may want to look for darker props and surfaces to help bring that mood to life. If you are shooting a colorful salad and are going for a more fresh and bright vibe, you may want to use brighter surfaces and colorful props.

SURFACES

When it comes to surfaces, you can start with foam boards. They come in black, white, or variety of colors and vary in size. They’re also quite affordable, but not the most durable. Another option is to rent or buy surfaces from different prop stylists or vendors. Keep in mind colors, textures, durability, size and weight.

Some vendors I love are:

PROPS

When it comes to props, you can also rent/buy from prop stylists. Although, it’s nice to have a little variety on hand to play with too. Be careful when it comes to props, though. Food photographers tend to be hoarders with props. 😉 I fell into that habit at first and would buy all the props that inspired me. The problem with this is, I would only use most of my props once or twice. Variety in food photography is nice, so when you have too many props, they may just end up sitting in your closet after a couple uses.

Composition

How do you want to compose your images? What angles will work best for the food? What orientation do you need to shoot at?

Food photography composition is how you plan to arrange the food and props in the frame. First, you’ll want to consider what angles you want to shoot. Three very popular angles in food photography are straight on, 3/4 angle and overhead (also known as a flat lay shot). You’ll also want to consider whether you’ll be shooting vertical or horizontal images. Different angles and orientations will affect where you place your food and props.

How you arrange your shot is ultimately up to you and your eye. But, when you are first getting started, it can be helpful to consider using the Rule of Thirds. It’s basically a grid composed of nine squares and four grid lines that appears on your camera or in your editing software on your computer. Your iPhone or DSLR will have a grid option within the menu settings to use as a guide.

By positioning your elements along the grid lines, it can help you create a nicely balanced composition. And, where the grid lines intersect is where you could consider placing the points of interest of your image. Experiment a bit and see what works and what doesn’t.

READ MORE ABOUT: FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY COMPOSITION TIPS

Food Photography 101

Food Photography 101: Technical Basics

The creative vision, food styling, props, surfaces and composition will help you make some important technical decisions about how you’re going to shoot your food images. Photography is very much an art, but it’s partially a science too.

Camera Settings

What will your camera settings be?

No matter what camera you use, whether it’s a DSLR or iPhone camera, being able to manually control the exposure settings is a huge step to improving your food photos. This is also known as shooting in Manual Mode. Manual mode allows you to adjust your aperture, shutter speed and ISO interchangeably. This can seem a little intimidating at first, but with a little practice, you’ll find a groove with it. It’s a level of control that will be a big game-changer.

DSLR

To shoot in manual mode on your DSLR, turn the top dial to M. Then, find your aperture, shutter speed and ISO dials and watch how they affect the exposure of your images as you adjust them.

I have a post that dives deeper into How To Shoot in Manual Mode. My favorite part about the post is that it also shares poorly exposed images and how to fix them. It’s one thing to show a properly exposed image, but will you know what to do when your images are looking underexposed or overexposed? I think this is incredibly helpful for you to see poorly exposed images and how to fix them to get you more comfortable with adjusting your camera settings. It’s definitely worth a read if you’re new to manual mode.

iPHONE

If you’re shooting with an iPhone, you can control your camera settings through a free app called Lightroom Mobile. When you open the app, tap the camera in the lower right corner. Then, tap the word AUTO to the left of the camera button at the bottom. Select PROFESSIONAL from the menu and you’ll quickly have access to your exposure, shutter speed and ISO. I highly recommend this app to iPhone users!

READ MORE ABOUT: IPHONE FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY LIGHTING

LENSES

Lenses will play a big role in your food images too. Are you shooting a wide table-scape? You may need a wide angle lens. Are you wanting to get up close and personal with the details of the food? You may need a macro lens. I have a DSLR blog post that shares The Best Lenses for Food Photography, if you want to check it out.

TRIPOD

As you learn to adjust your camera settings, you’ll soon discover that when you’re using a slower shutter speed you’ll need a tripod to stabilize your camera. You’d be surprised how quickly your camera will pick up camera shake when you start going below 1/100th of a second on your shutter. I love the Manfrotto 055 with Ball Head, but there are several good tripods to research so you can stay true to your budget.

Lighting

Are you shooting with natural light or artificial light? What light modifiers will you need?

We all know that light is instrumental in the food photography 101 fundamentals, but it’s not always easy to know how to work with it in the beginning.

Lighting requires you to think about where your light source is coming from, how strong it is and how to modify it to get the look you’re going for. It is going to take some practice.

Based on your creative vision, are you wanting soft, even lighting or more direct light that creates strong shadows and contrast? Your lighting and camera settings work hand-in-hand to create the best exposure for your food images.

The question is, are you using natural light or artificial light?

Natural Light

Natural light can be absolutely beautiful, but it can also be more limiting to work with.

  1. First, you have to set up by a window. If you want to adjust where your light is hitting your subject you have to physically move your subject (or your table) and that can be tricky when working with a carefully styled plate of food.
  2. Second, natural light is always changing and you have to adjust your camera settings to accommodate. It can get a bit tedious on set. This is another reason shooting in manual mode will help tremendously.
  3. Third, if you’re depending on the sun for light, you are limited to daylight hours only, which isn’t much time during the winter months. It also poses a problem if you’re shooting in a restaurant without windows or much natural light.

However, if natural light is your jam right now, that’s absolutely ok! I highly recommend having some diffusers, black foam board and white foam board on hand to help you modify and control the light as needed.

DIFFUSERS

Sometimes direct sunlight can be too harsh. A diffusor will help soften that light as it pours in through the window. Simply place it over your window and watch the light soften and spread out more evenly over the food.

BLACK FOAM BOARD

Black foam board can prevent unwanted light from hitting your food and also helps with emphasizing contrast and shadows. Play around with the placement of black foam boards and watch how it affects the light and shadows.

WHITE FOAM BOARD

White foam board well help bounce light back to an area of your food that may have become too dark. For example, if your window is on the left side of your food, the left side will be well lit. The right side, however, may get a little dark. If you place the white foam board on the right side of the food, you’ll see the light bounce back and add a little more light to brighten things up.

READ MORE ABOUT: NATURAL LIGHT FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS

Artificial Light

Artificial light was another one of those big game-changers for me. Artificial light gives you so much control and completely eliminates the limitations of natural light.

  1. If you need to move your light source, moving your light is a lot easier than moving your food or table.
  2. Your camera settings and the power of the light are consistent. There’s no extra adjusting needed, unless you are purposely reconfiguring a new light setup.
  3. Your light won’t turn off until you tell it to, so you can shoot at any time of day and in any location.

Diffusers and foam boards are great light modifiers for both natural and artificial light. With artificial lights, however, you have even more options like umbrellas, soft boxes, gels and grids. You also have the control to adjust the power of the light so it’s not too bright or too dark.

However, because working with artificial light is a little more complex, I have a much more detailed blog post on Getting Started with Artificial Lights and it shares three different lights to consider and behind the scenes setups of each one. I highly recommend checking it out.

READ MORE ABOUT: GETTING STARTED WITH ARTIFICIAL LIGHTS

Editing

How will you edit your images to bring them to their final form?

When it comes to Food Photography 101, editing is a big part of the process. Unfortunately, a lot of people neglect to explore it very much, if at all. Editing is truly the icing on the cake, because it brings your images to their final form. Without editing, your images can appear flat and incomplete.

Whether you’re shooting with a DSLR or an iPhone, there are endless capabilities when it comes to editing. Sometimes the slightest editing adjustments can go a long way and other times, you need to do more extensive editing to finalize your image(s).

Much like all of the fundamentals, editing takes practice as well. You’ll discover some really cool techniques and different ways to make some beautiful adjustments to your images.

COMPUTER SOFTWARE

If you’re editing on a computer, I recommend the following editing software:

  • LIGHTROOM
  • PHOTOSHOP
  • CAPTURE ONE

IPHONE EDITING APPS

If you’re editing with an iPhone, I recommend the following editing apps:

  • LIGHTROOM MOBILE
  • SNAPSEED
  • LENS DISTORTIONS

I hope this post demonstrated that there’s so much more to professional food photography than picking up a camera and taking a quick picture. Every now and then we get lucky, but luck isn’t something to rely on if you really want to improve your images. Planning ahead and exploring how each of the fundamentals play a role in your photo shoot will improve your food images significantly. Reach out with questions anytime!

Happy Shooting!

FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY FUNDAMENTALS: QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF

  • What is your creative vision & shot list?
  • What approach should you take with the food styling? How can you prioritize the shot list so the food doesn’t sit for too long?
  • What props and surfaces do you need to execute your creative vision?
  • How do you want to compose your images? What angles will work best for the food? What orientation do you need to shoot at?
  • What will your camera settings be?
  • Are you shooting with natural light or artificial light? What light modifiers will you need?
  • How will you edit your images to bring them to their final form?

This post contains affiliate links which means if you click or make a purchase through my site, I might make a small commission (at no extra cost to you). I only promote products and equipment that I actually use and support. 

All images ©Regan Baroni 2022.

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